Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agency: Potential Signings, Rumors and Storylines

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIMarch 12, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agency: Potential Signings, Rumors and Storylines

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    Pittsburgh Steelers fans, like all others enamored by the circus of NFL free agency, will be watching closely in the coming weeks and months to get a better idea of how the 2012 roster will look.

    With a postseason that ended more black than gold in January, autumn's Terrible Towel wavers will become spring's talent "cravers," hoping that franchise management makes the proper personnel decisions to reload a core that has championship potential.

    Personally, I had once always viewed the NFL draft as an ideal opportunity to find great long-term talent that can be homegrown and developed into the team's mold for excellence.  It's obvious that a franchise's best interest is to draft with long-term hopes.

    Conversely, free agency can be a great means to fill temporary holes, the patchwork that alleviates weaknesses of a roster.  Still, picking up a solid free agent does not necessarily equate to a mere pit stop.

    Names like James Farrior and Jerome Bettis prove that the acquisition of players from other teams, including via free agency, is hardly a mere search for "Band-Aids," often offering teams iconic legends that fit their way of playing the game more than that of their previous team.

    So, what moves will the Steelers look to make or, moreover, should they look to make?  And what other influences beyond team needs will impact these decisions?

    Cap room is the most obvious consideration.  Of the players listed here, right or wrong, only a few (at best) will be acquired.  The team's ability to re-sign Mike Wallace and, consequently, the resulting arrangement of his potential new deal, will have a profound impact on the degree of which the team dives into the free-agency pool.

    Also, the team's plans for the NFL draft will also impact their free-agent signing strategy.

    Without having a surefire crystal ball to iron out all of the miscellaneous factors, this is a look at some of the team needs that have been discussed this offseason, along with the potential free agents that are slated to be available to fill those needs. 

Will the Steelers Retain Mike Wallace and/or Sign Another Receiver?

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    4/11: Adam Schefter of ESPN is reporting the Steelers have re-signed WR Jericho Cotchery to a 2 year contract.


    The Steelers currently have a few things in their favor with regard to re-signing Mike Wallace.  These are factors that seemed stacked against the team earlier in the offseason.

    First, the team has shrewdly and wisely restructured contracts and reconsidered the need for a few aging veterans, reestablishing both cap solvency as well as some liquidity.  In other words, whether it's No. 17 or other free agents, Pittsburgh has a bit of flexibility that seemed almost impossible only a month ago.

    Secondly, the Steelers have placed a $2.75 million tender on Wallace.  As such, they have the right to match an offer provided by another NFL team, which would likely need to be very handsome—especially on the front end of the deal (specifically, the first year)—for the Steelers to part ways.  In addition to this dissuading factor, any NFL team that would sign Wallace under the tendering provisions would forfeit its first round selection in the April draft.

    So, is Wallace worth the price of admission and a first-round selection?  Consider that great receivers can be found at various stages of the NFL draft.  Consider in Steelers history that none of the trio of Ward, Wallace and Stallworth were taken earlier than the third round. 

    In other words, a first-round draft choice is a steep price to pay!

    I fully expect the Steelers to come to a long-term agreement with the rocket receiver quickly after the start of free agency.  If so, that should cap most of the team's focus at the wideout position.

    However, provided they do not come to an accord, what other receivers could the team entertain?  (I'll also add at this time that the addition of another first-round choice would give the team trading leverage to move up and acquire NT Dontari Poe, who performed amazingly at the scouting combine.)

    Well, first and foremost is Jericho Cotchery, a tough-as-nails receiver who was embraced by Steelers Country during a productive second half of 2011.  He has experience in a starting role, but he is equally capable of playing in the slot, physical and determined, like a prize fighter on the inside.

    Then there is the name that has the entire NFL rumor mill on the fast spin setting, Plaxico Burress, who began his politicking about a week ago:

    Ben Roethlisberger has always been my favorite quarterback.  People can say what they want to about him, but the guy just goes out and wins. And he's been that way since he came to Pittsburgh in 2004.

    Aww, shucks.  That said, the signing of Burress, while not impossible, seems like a long shot for both sides.  Nevertheless, the odds are not as steep as some of the other names that have been mentioned.

    While names like Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston have entered the mix, what are the odds of the team signing either of them if the price for Wallace becomes too steep?  Even ex-Colts Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon—the latter of whom presents youth, skill and a lofty yards-per-reception average—will be hard to land with receiver-desperate teams like San Francisco, Jacksonville and Washington


    UPDATE: Pipe dreams be damned for those fans unaware of the team's cap constraints and harboring grand wishes:  Garcon to the 'Skins and Jackson to the 'Bucs.  That said, the WR market, outside of "Mega-tron," is lending itself nicely to a smooth transition for the team's re-signing Wallace.  So far, no action, and most predict the price is too steep anyway, especially against the loss of a first round draft selection.


    Can the Steelers really afford to out-bid Dan Snyder for a veteran receiver whenever there are other positions that can be filled?

    Expect the Steelers to re-sign Wallace and/or Cotchery, continuing the already present chemistry between the franchise quarterback and a fine receiving corps.

What Offensive Line Spots Should Be Addressed...and When?

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    4/12: Jason La Canfora of NFL.com is reporting that the Steelers have re-signed OL Trai Essex.

    Along with many other players, Willie Colon restructured his deal and will remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012 along with resigned free agent Jonathan Scott.  With Marcus Gilbert entrenched as a starter at tackle, one of the two aforementioned players will start across the line from the former Gator at the right tackle spot.

    Thankfully, the Steelers have wisely acquired enough versatile linemen to be able to patchwork the offensive front.  As such, they should have the necessary depth at tackle to be safe.  Guard is a different story.

    Yes, the team has linemen that can assume multiple roles.  Yet the days of putting together a doctored offensive line are wearing on an impatient fanbase that is tired of its quarterback hobbling (though, that is partly his own fault) and inconsistent blocking.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers need to a solid guard.

    There is an abundance of potential guard talent in the 2012 NFL draft, and the team may be hopeful to acquire Cordy Glenn or an equivalent selection in the second round.

    Nevertheless, if the team is looking for an option to further solidify their line during free agency, a couple of possible candidates are Deuce Letui and Ben Grubbs.

    UPDATE: More than one person hated my recommendation of Grubbs (though my true recommendation is to draft for the position of guard).  Grubbs has since signed with the Saints.

    Interestingly, Letui is one of only two Tongan (yes, Tongan) players in the NFL.  The other was recently released from the black and gold—Chris Kemoeatu.  Interestingly, the two Tongans played directly across from each other in Super Bowl XLIII. 

    Many recall his failing a physical as a free agent headed to Cincinnati last season, thus resulting in his return to Arizona.  The failure was due to weight issues that have plagued his career.  

    However, Letui was a reliable fixture with the Cardinals from 2007-2010, only missing one start before losing his job to Rex Hadnot last season.  Drafted in the second round by Arizona in 2006, Letui was regarded as having a huge upside, and he met his potential in most of his career starts, both run- and pass-blocking, with aplomb.

    With his recent issues, he should come at a great value if the Steelers were to consider signing him.

    Former Ravens tackle Ben Grubbs will not come at such a discounted price.

    Having given up 2.5 or fewer sacks in four of the last five seasons, Grubbs also has the welcome tendency of getting to the second level with ferocity, a ferocious run blocker who often abuses interior defensive linemen.

    While Vince Wolford had success against Grubbs in the AFC Championship game, his upside is still tremendous.  The only bad news is that Grubbs suffered a toe injury in 2011—the first serious physical setback of his career—causing him to miss six games.

    With the value placed on—and the price paid for—guards having gone up, the Steelers would likely have to sacrifice in other areas to entertain the acquisition of Grubbs. 

    Personally, I feel the team should utilize the depth of linemen in this year's draft to address their offensive line issues.

With the Departure of Farrior, Will the Steelers Sign an Inside Linebacker?

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    Timmons.  Harrison.  Farrior.  Woodley.

    In 2011, it seemed to be a winning combination, the chemistry equivalent of turning lead into gold.  However, injuries and age hampered the best laid plans of the Steelers' brass, and the first hardcore sign of change came with the release of Farrior, who essentially quarterbacked the defense during his tenure.

    The Steelers absolutely need an inside linebacker.  At best, they need depth at the position.  At worst, they do not have the skill on the roster to arrange competent play inside.  And, at the very least, they don't necessarily have a long-term answer, and they will need one to fill Farrior's huge shoes. 

    With any luck, the Steelers will be able to anticipate the positional need (mainly due to age) and recruit the talent necessary to continue a long-standing tradition of linebacker excellence.  History indicates without fail that they will succeed.

    Larry Foote's age is also of concern, though, he is still on the team roster currently, despite many predictions to the contrary.  Will he fill the void?

    Many have called upon Stevenson Sylvester to step into the role, but that would require a great deal of improvement.  He started against the Patriots, but he saw only 11 plays.  The performance was not jaw-dropping, and Sylvester must focus his offseason on learning the defense inside and out and executing his knowledge on the field during training camp.

    Unfortunately, the draft and free agency precede training camp, so Sylvester may not make the starting cut either way.

    The team and fans seem very high on Dont'a Hightower out of Alabama.  Once again, the free-agency route seems least likely for this position, but the Steelers can't draft for every one of their needs in April.  Somewhere along the roster, Pittsburgh will have to buck expectations and splash into F.A.

    I don't expect them to sign a free-agent linebacker, however.

    Stephen Tulloch's name has been mentioned, but he'll command too much money.  London Fletcher also ranks atop free-agent power rankings for the position, but both age and money detract from his value.

    UPDATE:  As expected, both Tulloch (Lions) and Fletcher (Redskins) seem to be staying in place.

    The linebackers ranked below the two above rank highly against the run, but most of them are average at best in pass coverage, an attribute critical for an inside linebacker in the team's scheme.

    One potentially affordable option could have been D'Qwell Jackson, but he recently re-signed with the Cleveland Browns.

What Will the Steelers Do at Nose Tackle?

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    Whether or not Casey Hampton returns should have no bearing on the Steelers' focus to acquire a top-notch defensive tackle.  "Big Snack" is recovering from a serious ACL injury, and 2011 made it clear to the naked eye that Hampton's best playing days are behind him.

    The Steelers need to address the long-term future at the lynchpin position along the defensive front.

    Fellow columnist Chris G. gave a logical order of the progression of available tackles in this year's draft.  I agree, and I feel strongly that the long-term answer for Pittsburgh is to do whatever it takes to draft Dontari Poe, who was immaculate at the scouting combine.  The next best option is to find a long-term option at nose tackle via the draft, whether it be Alameda Ta'amu, Josh Chapman or waiting for other options in upcoming seasons.

    The predicament with regards to signing a tackle in free agency for the Steelers is a matter of give and take.  Signing a long-term talent will not allow the team to skimp at all with the position being so important in the defensive scheme.  However, a top-tier asking price of $12 million-plus will coincide with the popularly-named Paul Solai, further handcuffing the team financially.

    UPDATE: Some of the Jets offseason has caused the team to be mired in controversy, but most of the Tebow naysayers will not share that same sentiment about keeping Solai. 

    To make an appropriate selection via free agency, the team would need to dump Hampton.  Plain and simple.

    And frankly, a temporary fixture of moderate talent is not always the answer at this critical position. So keeping the current talent and skimping is not an option.

    The options are truly as follows:

    A) Returning Hampton and/or McClendon and drafting for a bright future, or

    B) Dumping Hampton and either drafting or signing a long-term stalwart via free agency.

    Option B allows more liberty for considering great tackles such as Solai and Sione Pouha.  As a dominant run-stuffer, he would fit well in Pittsburgh.  However, Pouha is already 33 years old, and the Jets (and defensive-minded Rex Ryan) are sure to offer a lucrative contract of their own to keep his services. 

    Personally, I believe the bright future of the nose tackle in Pittsburgh should be solved in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft.

Should the Steelers Sign a Running Back in Rashard Mendenhall's Absence?

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    Rashard Mendenhall's ACL tear in the final game of 2011 in Cleveland Browns Stadium makes his return in 2012 questionable.  Many Steelers fans, growing impatient with what is viewed as unmatched potential, have been advocates for releasing Mendenhall altogether.

    Whether that stems more from his production or his maligned moments is another question for another article.

    Love him or hate him, the good news is that the team may have enough talent in place to account for his absence. 

    Isaac Redman put in a yeoman's effort in the final two games of the season, averaging over 7.0 yards per carry in each outing.  You wouldn't know it from the Steelers' game plans, but that certainly factors in to the type of decision-making that made Bruce Arians expendable.

    Redman is a bull who showed the ability to not only push piles, but also to break the open-field tackle and have enough agility to become a game-breaker.

    Mendenhall is not the only potential team departure.   Mewelde Moore is also a free agent.  If the team re-signs him, it will be not only for his ability to make key receptions against the blitz or block on the outside, but it will also be due to the inexperience of backups Jonathan Dwyer (who had a 100-yard game last season against the Tennessee Titans) and John Clay.

    Moore's dual threat in the team's offense may not be necessary, however, when touted second-year player Baron Batch, a fan favorite, returns to the squad from a season-ending injury as a rookie. Batch is in the Moore mold, a speedy runner who can make plays both in the running and passing game. 

    While the team's priority interest in free agency seems better geared toward other positions, an affordable option with fullback skills would be former Baltimore and Kansas City runner Le'Ron McClain.

    UPDATE:  This was one of the few moves I felt to be truly possible during a predictably quiet offseason, and I felt finally obtaining fullback skill would allow the offense to develop more thoroughly under Haley.  Unfortunately, McClain is now a San Diego Chargers, ending the realistic portion of my offseason free agents listing (which consisted of McClain alone).

    McClain is of the fullback mold and is able to both run and catch in the offense, though, he is a physical back.  More than anything, he can be used along the line of scrimmage in repetition, especially with wearing down defensive fronts when working as a lead run blocker.

Should the Steelers Sign a Kicker to Replace Suisham?

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    For those asking, "What about the punter?" the team tendered Jeremy Kapinos, and they absolutely will ultimately sign him.  That's not bad news by any means, as Kapinos was fairly reliable in the stead of the oft-injured Daniel Sepulveda.  Whether the team chooses to bring Sepulveda back in 2012 as the second punter in camp—opposed to a second, younger leg to push Kapinos—remains to be seen.

    The more important leg to consider at the current time is the right leg of Sean Suisham.

    Every time it seemed imminent that Sean Suisham would shank his way out of the Steel City, the confounding kicker would make a clutch kick that made you say, "Huh.  Maybe he isn't so bad."

    The pendulum truly went back and forth for Suisham in late 2010 and 2011.

    To be honest, retrospectively, I don't think returning Suisham for another campaign is a bad decision.  As the season wore along and the offense continued to sputter in the red zone, the kicker continually surprised me with a proverbial "pie in the face" for every clutch kick he made.

    However, I'm quite certain that there of hundreds reading this that are saying, "No way.  A more reliable kicker ranks high on the list of team needs."

    If you are in this category, the name of the game is "The Price is Right," or more accurately, "If the Price is Right!"

    While guys like Jason Hanson have fine statistics, age is a factor (yes, even for kickers, 41 is pushing it...), and kicking outdoors in inclement conditions is an entirely unique beast.

    The most reliable bad-weather, free-agent kicker is Phil Dawson, who has hit on 83 percent of his kicks (including eight 50-plus-yard conversions) during an entire career spent with the rival Browns.  Surely, he would love to kick a few of those from the winning side of the rivalry...if the price is right.

    On a humorous note, Joe Nedney is also on the list of available PKs.  Fans in the 'Burgh will vividly recall his Oscar-worthy performance during the 2003 Divisional Playoffs.  If he were to walk onto Heinz Field for an attempt by the home team, would the initial reaction from fans be positive or negative?

    Despite entertaining these names, it seems likely that Suisham will return.

Could the Steelers Sign a Corner to Work Opposite Ike Taylor?

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    In 2011, "Big Play" Willie Gay finally lived up to the nickname placed on him by coach Mike Tomlin.  Many will argue that Gay's 61 tackles and improving coverage skills, in addition to the team's top pass defense ranking, are evidence that he can play alongside Ike Taylor in the team backfield.

    Nevertheless, Gay is not a quality starter across from Ike Taylor, and his serviceability in nickel and dime packages should not be enough to convince the team to return his services.  He was the weak link in the defensive backfield (how many times did teams look to exploit him in key late-game situations?) and struggled to prevent the big play in key situations.

    So, who should the Steelers consider?  Pipe dreamers will name Brandon Carr. Carr will be too expensive, especially considering teams with more cap room and far graver corner needs could drive up the asking price.

    Other free agents such as Cortland Finnegan and Carlos Rodgers have been mentioned among fans in the Steel City lately. 

    UPDATE: Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com reports via his Twitter that the Rams have a deal in place that is reportedly worth about $10 million a season. Adam Schefter of ESPN Tweets that the deal is worth $50 million for five-years.

    UPDATE: Finnegan completed the above-referenced arrangement with St. Louis, while Rodgers returned to the 49ers as expected.  Additionally, appeasing any unrealistic notion by fans of obtaining Carr, the former Chief now proudly wears the Dallas star.

    Carlos Rodgers is expected by most analysts to return to the 49ers, and his age makes him a less lucrative option than a few other options just entering their prime.

    Does that make Finnegan the ideal candidate?

    While one can argue Finnegan as an aggressive player in the same vein as Hines Ward, others view him as a troubled personality and troubling prospect to bring to the 'Burgh.

    However, Finnegan is instinctive and aggressive to the football, not shying away from a tackle and a fine blitzer.  However, due to his lack of size, he occasionally misses tackles, an attribute not taken lightly in Pittsburgh.  Also, his pure cover skills on the outside are above average at best.

    Is his reputation alone worth the price of admission?  I think not, especially with the Steelers already holding a few up-and-comers in their own deck of cards, such as Ryan Mundy and Cortez Allen.

    Nick Dewitt brought up an excellent proposition in naming Aaron Ross.  While he has been scrutinized for struggles in New York, those issues are largely magnified in the Big Apple.  He is still more glued to the opposing receiver, particularly deep, than Gay ever was.  Likewise, he's shown improvement in his stead with the Giants.

    While there is a strong likelihood he'll return to N.Y., the Steelers should still give Ross a look, if not an offer.  Last season, he had career highs with 60 tackles, four interceptions and a 12 passes defensed.  Those numbers appear comparable to Gay's performance in 2011, but upon observation of some game tape, my eyeball test indicated a corner that was much more reliable in man coverage.

    With the right coaching and motivation, Ross could become a key contributor in the Pittsburgh secondary.